Secretariat

Profiles of Courage

This column marks the convergence of three of my favorite horses and all-time greats, and the auction of memorabilia associated with them. First, credit must be given to the late, great artist Richard Stone Reeves who aptly titled his fine art print depicting Kelso, Forego, and John Henry “Profiles of Courage.” Its natural pairing with the three track programs found in the Secretariat.com archives sparked this trio of tales waiting to be told. I am not entirely sure if the column inspired the auction or visa versa, but either way I hope our readers and the lucky winning bidder will enjoy this small piece of racing history surrounding these racing legends, and arguably their most courageous performances. Bidding is now open. Good Luck! ~ Steve Haskin

Profiles of Courage

By Steve Haskin

 

Kelso…Forego… John Henry. Their names ring out like symphonies that have endured for centuries.

There have been many great horses who have graced the American Turf in the past six decades, the vast majority of whom came and went in two or three years. But only three can claim to have had their own decade; an era unto themselves. Yes, the 60s belonged to Kelso. The 70s, even with three Triple Crown winners, belonged to Forego. And the 80s belonged to John Henry.

In the span of 24 years, from 1960 to 1984, these three remarkable geldings raced in 21 of them.

This column is about three of their many victories. What made these victories so memorable was the courage these three warriors displayed at the ages of 6, 6, and 8, as they ran their hearts out in major races against far younger opponents and were able to emerge victorious by the narrowest of margins.

But before we get to those races and the stories behind them, let’s take a look at these three equine heroes and the amazing feats they accomplished. Together they won 84 stakes races and captured 26 championships, including 10 Horse of the Year titles.

Each one reflected his own era. Kelso, owned by Allaire du Pont, came along in the innocent halcyon days of the early to mid-sixties before the drug craze and the Viet Nam war. He was every schoolgirl’s hero; the first to have his own national fan club started by a 12-year-old girl named Heather Noble. Even to the hardened New York racegoer he became a symbol of dependability. When he was retired one was heard saying, “It just won’t seem like Saturday without Kelso.” Although considered the runt of the litter, he lived the life of a king. He loved his chocolate ice cream sundaes, and at Woodstock Farm, where he was born and spent the rest of his life, he became a top-class show jumper, had his own private mailbox with his name on the welcome mat, and slept on a bed of sugar cane fibers. He had his own specially embroidered blanket and drank only bottled spring water from Arkansas costing a dollar a gallon. But on the racetrack he was a fighter, who despite his slight physique finished in the money in 19 of the 24 starts in which he carried 130 pounds or more, winning 13, with five seconds and a third.

Forego, a giant of a horse, came along riding on the tail of a comet named Secretariat. As the Viet Nam War began to draw to a close, he was the ultimate warrior. If he were human, he would have earned a case full of Purple Hearts, having performed amazing and heroic feats on wounded legs so bad they had to be hosed down for two hours a day or longer. Physically, he was an imposing presence who could intimidate any horse at any distance. To demonstrate his versatility he is the only horse to win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and be voted Champion Sprinter the same year. In the span of six weeks in 1974, he won the 1 ½-mile Woodward, seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap, and two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Despite carrying staggering weights he was able to equal or break track records and once ran a mile and an eighth in 1:45 4/5 carrying 135 pounds. From May 30, 1973 to August 6, 1977, Forego went an incredible 45 races without finishing worse than fourth. In fact, he finished third or better in 43 of those races. In the 24 races in which he carried 130 pounds or more his average weight was 134 pounds. His admirers paid tribute to him by coming to the track wearing “Forego” T-shirts in the yellow and black colors of his owner Martha Gerry.

John Henry was the quintessential rags to riches story. His sire, Ole Bob Bowers, was considered merely a clean-up stallion at Golden Chance Farm who stood for a meager stud fee of $500 and then was sold for $900, standing at a farm in Osseo, Michigan. A year after being sold, his son was born, later to be named John Henry, who began his career at tiny Jefferson Downs in Louisiana Downs. He was such an irascible youngster his owners couldn’t wait to get rid of him. First he was sold for a mere $1,100 and then for $2,200. One person, Harold Snowden, wound up selling him three times after the buyers kept returning the horse to him. In the late 70s to early 80s, racing was going through a grass racing boom, with the escalation of purse money for major turf stakes. John Henry, now owned by bicycle salesman Sam Rubin, who grew up on the streets of New York City, finally was put on the grass by trainer Bobby Donato at age three and a legend was born. John Henry became the first horse to earn $3 million, the first horse to earn $4 million, the first horse to earn $5 million, and the first horse to earn $6 million. Not only did he excel on the grass, he became the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap twice and also captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup. At the age of 9, he won six stakes, four of them Grade 1, at five different racetracks and became so popular he was featured on NBC’s Today show and was named by People magazine as one of the 25 most intriguing “people” of 1984.

In all, John Henry defeated 13 champions or classic winners; Kelso defeated nine champions or classic winners; and Forego defeated eight champions or classic winners. Between the three geldings, they defeated three Kentucky Derby winners, two Preakness winners and five Belmont Stakes winners. 

Now that you know something about these three legendary geldings and the times in which they lived, here are the stories of three of their most memorable victories that truly were profiles of courage.

WHITNEY STAKES 1965

As Kelso completed his 7-year-old campaign earning his unprecedented fifth consecutive Horse of the Year title following memorable battles with arch rival Gun Bow, no one had any idea whether he would return as an 8-year-old. The only definite plan for 1965 was making charitable appearances at U.S. and Canadian racetracks with proceeds going to various equine research projects conducted by the Grayson Foundation. But as winter drew to an end, Kelso began getting antsy, a sign that the competitive fire was still there and that he had more racing left in him. Mrs. du Pont was receiving hundreds of letters a week begging her not to retire the old boy. Even Claiborne Farm owner Bull Hancock commented that Kelso should be given the opportunity to become racing’s first $2 million earner.

But as of April 20, Kelso was still making public appearances, accompanied by his canine pal Charlie Potatoes. With letters continuing to pour in daily and Kelso still apparently enjoying life at the racetrack, Mrs. du Pont announced that her beloved gelding would return to competition, even though it was now well into June.

With few spots in which to run him, trainer Carl Hanford put him in a six-furlong allowance race at Monmouth on June 29. It was basically a paid workout, so no one was concerned when he finished a close third, closing with a big rush from the back of the pack. He then had an easy time of it 11 days later, winning the Diamond State Handicap at Delaware Park under 130 pounds. He was entered two weeks later in the Brooklyn Handicap under topweight of 132 pounds giving 11 pounds to Suburban Handicap winner Pia Star, the previous year’s Belmont and Travers winner Quadrangle, and Roman Brother, who was destined for Horse of the Year honors.

At age 8 and burdened with 132 pounds and under such adverse conditions, it was simply too much for the old boy to handle, and he finished third, beaten four lengths by Pia Star and Roman Brother.

Two weeks later, Kelso was back for the Whitney Stakes. Although he still had to carry 130 pounds, he was only conceding three pounds to Pia Star under the allowance conditions.

The morning of the race, Dickie Jenkens, who was closer to Kelso than anyone, having been around him and taking care of him since he was a baby at Woodstock Farm, was in Louie’s Kitchen on the Saratoga backstretch when trainer George Poole walked in. Poole, a former assistant to Greentree trainer John Gaver, yelled over to Jenkins, “Hey Dickie, when are you all gonna retire that old fart?”

Jenkins shot back, “Hell, this old sucker still wants to run.”

“Well, Greentree’s got one in today, and he ain’t gonna beat him,” Poole said.

Poole was referring to Malicious, the Nassau County Handicap winner, who was a stakes winner at 2, 3, and 4 and was in the Whitney with a feathery 114 pounds.

In the tree-lined saddling area, the crowd gathered six and seven deep to see their hero. When Jenkins, on the lead pony, accompanied Kelso to the gate, the horse turned his head slightly and looked right at him and there was little life in his eyes. As they approached the starting gate, the assistant starter grabbed Kelso’s bridle to lead him into the gate and said to Jenkins, “I think he’s gonna get beat today, Dickie.”

Malicious, in receipt of 16 pounds from Kelso, shot to the lead and set moderate fractions of :23 2/5, :47 1/5, and 1:11 1/5. Kelso was back in fourth in the five-horse field, five lengths off the pace. Neither Pia Star nor the top-class Crewman could make a dent in Malicious’ lead. Kelso was another three lengths back and going nowhere. Even Jenkins conceded this wasn’t his day.

Then, suddenly, it was as if Kelso was roused from a sound sleep nearing the top of the stretch. Milo Valenzuela brought him off the rail and took off after Malicious, who still had a 2 ½-length lead passing the eighth pole. Kelso was relentless, and it was all heart that was pushing those 8-year-old legs. Kelso kept coming, driven by sheer will, and with one final surge, stuck his nose in front right at the wire.

Kelso returned to a hero’s welcome, and even the hardened Dickie Jenkins was moved to tears. Although he would win the Stymie Handicap later in the year against a weaker field, the Whitney would prove to be Kelso’s final moment of glory.

MARLBORO CUP 1976

Frank Whiteley sat on a stool outside his barn at Belmont Park hosing the legs of Forego. It was 1976, the year after the tragic death of Ruffian, who Whiteley trained for Stuart Janney. With Forego’s trainer Sherrill Ward in poor health, the towering 17-hands gelding was turned over to Whiteley for his 6-year-old campaign, coming off back-to-back Horse of the Year titles.

Whiteley, who also had trained the great Damascus, took one look at Forego close-up and told owner Martha Gerry he had the worst legs he’d ever seen on a horse. It was said about Forego that he basically had one good leg. When noted veterinarian Alex Harthill X-rayed the horse he told Whiteley, “Frank, you haven’t got a chance with this horse.”

So every day, Whiteley would run the hose on Forego’s legs for several hours to help his sesamoid problems and calcium deposits. Often it would be Whiteley and two others running three hoses on him at the same time. The resulting puddle was so large it became known around the barn as Lake Whiteley.

As Whiteley said, “We also had to do a lot of massaging. His ankles were horrible to look at from so much wear and tear, He was an amazing horse to do the things he did.”

Despite his physical problems, Forego was still as powerful a force as ever on the racetrack, dominating his opponents and picking up weight with each race.

Under Whiteley’s care, Forego won the Met Mile under 130 pounds, the Nassau County Handicap under 132 pounds, was beaten a nose by Foolish Pleasure in the Suburban Handicap under 134 pounds, won the Brooklyn Handicap beating Foolish Pleasure under 134 pounds, was beaten a length with a wide trip in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 136 pounds, giving 24 pounds to Greentree’s victorious Hatchet Man, then won the nine-furlong Woodward Handicap in a near-track record 1:45 4/5 under 135 pounds.

Racing secretary Tommy Trotter showed no mercy when he assigned Forego a staggering 137 pounds in the mile and a quarter Marlboro Cup. Trotter said he had no choice after Forego won the Woodward so impressively carrying 135. Rather than break the news to Whiteley he had the weights mimeographed and let Whiteley see them and decide whether or not to run him.

Whiteley was an old school hardboot and he realized weight was a part of the game. What did bother him, however, was when the track came up sloppy. Because of Forego’s bad legs, Ward and Whiteley both tried to keep him off wet tracks. Whiteley contemplated scratching him from the Marlboro Cup, but following an earlier race he met with jockey Bill Shoemaker, who told him the track was on the soft side but it still had a good bottom. As long as the cushion was firm and Forego could get hold of the track he was OK, so Whiteley decided to run him.

Honest Pleasure, who had set a new track record winning the Travers on the front end, appreciated the 0 furlongs where he could set an easier pace. As a 3-year-old he was getting 18 actual pounds from Forego. He went right to the lead as expected, setting fractions of :23 4/5 and :47 2/5 before picking up the tempo, disposing of everyone near him.

Forego, back in eighth early, launched a very wide bid, circling horses around the turn. Turning for home after three-quarters in a swift 1:10 4/5 and a mile in 1:35, Forego was still sixth and way out in the middle of the track, as Honest Pleasure showed no signs of slowing down. It was all up to Forego to go get him. But it looked hopeless. Even Shoemaker admitted afterward he felt he wouldn’t even be in the money.

Honest Pleasure held a clear advantage at the eighth pole, with Forego, as usual, still on his left lead, some five lengths back. It looked as if he had no shot to catch the classy frontunner. But somehow he kept finding more gears and began closing in relentlessly with those humongous strides. It was going to desperately close. Still out in the middle of the track, Forego just got up to win by a head. Even with 137 pounds on his back he missed his own track record of 1:59 4/5 by a fifth of a second. Only two horses – Whisk Broom II in 1913 and Exterminator in 1922 – had carried more weight at a mile and a quarter and won.

Forego’s career had many shining moments, but it was the 1976 Marlboro Cup that defined not only his greatness, but the courage of the Thoroughbred.

ARLINGTON MILLION 1981

When John Henry concluded his 1980 campaign he still did not have a permanent home. Racing in California the first half of 1981, he was trained by Ron McAnally, winning six consecutive stakes, the last three Grade 1s. He then was sent to Lefty Nickerson in New York, where he won one of his five starts, with three seconds and a third. Then it was back to McAnally in California, winning five straight stakes, four of them Grade 1s. Then, after a fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt, it was back to New York, where he won the Sword Dancer Stakes at Belmont.

Following the Sword Dancer, John Henry rejoined McAnally at Del Mar to prepare for the inaugural running of the Arlington Million, America’s first million-dollar race, with Bill Shoemaker replacing Laffit Pincay as John’s regular rider.

Ten days before the Arlington Million, John Henry went out for a routine gallop, and at 10:15 that morning the horse was noticeably off in his left foreleg. When veterinarian Jack Robbins examined John he was extremely sensitive at the juncture of the cannon bone and the ankle, and Robbins couldn’t put any pressure on it. X-rays needed to be taken, but to avoid John being seen having X-rays right before the Arlington Million and the panic that would ensue they brought him to Del Mar’s on-site clinic under a different name.

X-rays revealed no fracture, so Robbins said to McAnally, “Let’s take a shot and inject the ligament with cortisone. The next morning John was walking perfectly and the sensitivity was gone, But with the Million only a week away, John Henry needed to have a stiff work. McAnally told Robbins, “If we don’t work him he’s not going to run in the Arlington Million.”

The Saturday before the race, John worked with Shoemaker aboard, and Robbins admitted, “I was scared to death. Even though the X-rays were negative you never know if there is a fracture coming on or not.” A stunned McAnally and Robbins watched as John blazed a mile and an eighth in 1:46 3/5.

A few days after being given a clean bill of health, John Henry departed for Chicago. In addition to a number of top-class American horses, including the United Nations Handicap winner Key to Content and the local favorite Rossi Gold, winner of three stakes at the meet, John would be facing the 1980 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Argument and the 1980 and ’81 French Oaks winners Mrs. Penny and Madam Gay

All McAnally wanted was firm turf course and a good post position so there would be no excuses. As he and his wife Debbie were ready to leave for Chicago he received a phone call from Santa Anita and Del Mar publicist Bill Kolberg, who told him, “Ron, I’m calling from Chicago. I have news for you, it’s pouring rain and John drew post 12.”

When he arrived, his worst fears were realized. The course was very soft, and with John having to break from the far outside, there was little doubt he would have a lot to overcome.

At the start, Shoemaker allowed John to find his best stride and slowly worked his way into position, settling in eighth and now along the inside. Key to Content was being pressed on the front end by 40-1 longshot The Bart, a tough consistent stakes horse trained in Southern California by John Sullivan.

As they passed the stands and headed into the backstretch, McAnally knew that John was in trouble. He could see that there was no rhythm to his stride. Shoemaker felt John wasn’t handling the soft going and just left him alone, gently nudging him along. Passing the half-mile pole, McAnally’s face lit up, John was back in his normal stride and starting to find his rhythm. But at the head of the stretch he still had six lengths to make up. The Bart, surprisingly, had put Key to Content away and kicked for home with the lead.

When John Henry came charging down the stretch in hot pursuit, the crowd erupted. John’s ears were pinned back as he continued to close in, but The Bart was not giving up and still had plenty of run left in him. Everyone knew it was going to come down to a head bob. They hit the wire together, with no one knowing for sure who had won. But from the NBC camera angle it appeared as if The Bart had gotten the bob and they posted on the screen that he was the unofficial winner.

The Bart’s owner Franklin Groves and his wife thought they had won and rushed down to track, while John’s owner Sam Rubin decided to remain in his box until it was official. Finally, the suspense was over as John Henry’s number went up, much to embarrassment of NBC. Rubin saw The Bart’s owners coming back and they were in tears. “When I saw that, it took all the guts out of me,” he said.

Here were two horses who had pushed themselves to the limit, and neither one deserved to lose. That indelible moment in history when John Henry and The Bart crossed the wire as one, with their necks fully stretched, lives on in Edwin Bogucki’s dramatic bronze statue that overlooks the Arlington Park paddock. It was unveiled in 1989, as the then 14-year-old John Henry and 13-year-old The Bart paraded in front of the stands in a heartwarming tribute to two gallant horses.

EPILOGUE

On October 15, 1983, John Henry competed in The Jockey Club Gold Cup. The New York Racing Association, with the approval of Mrs. du Pont and Mrs. Gerry, arranged to have the 26-year old Kelso and 13-year-old Forego come to Belmont Park and join John in leading the post parade once the former was given the OK to travel after a thorough veterinary examination.

It was quite a sight and a special day in New York racing experiencing these three legendary geldings on the track together. Fans rehashed old times seeing Kelso and again looked in awe at the mighty Forego. The 9-year-old John Henry was still going strong and performing unprecedented feats at that age.

Many in attendance recalled the days of their youth when Kelso ruled the sport. The memories came flooding back and some even were able to share those recollections with their grandchildren and tell them the story of the runt who would be king.

In the Belmont paddock, Kelso responded to the applause by bowing his neck in regal splendor as if it was 20 years earlier. This was where he prepared for many of his greatest battles; where the cheers resounded at the sight of him as he made his grand entrance. Now all these years later, he was hearing the roar of the crowd once again.

It was an event that should have had a happy ending. But sadly, the following day, back at Woodstock Farm, Kelso developed a severe case of colic. All efforts to save him failed and he died at 7 p.m. that evening. The next morning he was buried behind the office and a devastated Mrs. du Pont remained in seclusion for several days. Unlike other horses Kelso’s age who pass away after years of quiet solitude in their paddock, he left with the once familiar cheers of the crowd still fresh in his mind.

John Henry and Forego spent the rest of their lives together entertaining visitors at the Kentucky Horse Park, putting on two shows a day and providing the fans with close up looks and photo ops, as an employee at the Hall of Champions read off their long list of accomplishments. Forego, who suffered from arthritis, lived to the age of 27 before a paddock accident took his life. John Henry, despite several ailments, was still too irascible and tenacious to die, finally succumbing to kidney problems at the ripe old age of 32.

The last of the great geldings was gone. Their reign spanned three decades and the thrills they provided are too numerous to mention. They became like old friends who never let us down, and if there is one legacy they left behind, it is that we will never see their like again.

Photographs courtesy of New York Racing Association and Arlington Park. Please click on individual images to enlarge.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW “PROFILES OF COURAGE” PRINT AND ORIGINAL PROGRAMS 


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96 Responses to “Profiles of Courage”

  1. JC says:

    Now “Rock” eyeing Dirt Grade 1 2021 Pacific Classic (G1)… many of us still believe in him and I know your names … Lol. we bet on him in Derby.. Still an interesting race horse in my opinion. Who will be the Joke is my issue.

  2. Davids says:

    Steve, reading your historic reflections on great runners usually lifts the spirits but, alas, watching the last race ever at Arlington Park just a few hours ago has flattened the sense of joie de vivre. Gone forever, as have the champions you have written so eloquently about in the above essay. The authenticity of a scribbled over Saratoga program was a beautiful touch.

    On a happier note, the Prix du Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard Jacques le Marois will be run at Deauville today with the exciting clash between Poetic Flare and Palace Pier a highlight. Allez, Poetic Flare. Highly anticipated European racing does not rest there, even more thrilling is the visit to York on Wednesday for the Juddmonte International Stakes. Can St Mark’s Basilica maintain his winning ways? Absolutely!!

    • Davids says:

      St Mark’s Basilica is out of the International Stakes at York due to a minor injury which makes the race slightly less interesting. St Mark’s Basilica could return next in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on 11 September. Fingers crossed.

  3. Laura L Lanham says:

    Thank you Steve as these were 3 truely great ones. Don’t think we will ever see horses carry that kind of weight here anymore